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Sustainability initiative launches with 10 teams to transform campus into 'living lab'

Sustainability collaborative efforts on campus -- from buildings, climate, food and energy to land, purchasing, transportation, water, waste and people -- just got a lot more coordinated with the March 1 launch of a new focus team initiative for sustainability.

About 40 faculty and staff members gathered in the Biotechnology Building to kick off the universitywide initiative and celebrate an updated Cornell Sustainable Campus website, which includes a new navigation bar and pages for each focus group.

Each team, co-led by a faculty and staff member, comes together to form a structure designed to foster a living laboratory environment on campus, said Frank DiSalvo, director of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

"We are committed at Cornell to being a model for sustainability for the world. But we're going to have to invent the model," DiSalvo said.

The process will require long-term commitment and collaboration among faculty, campus operations staff, students and external partners, DiSalvo said. "The challenges are so great that we cannot do it unless we are working together; unless we're seeking synergies, identifying the most compelling opportunities."

Cornell has all of the necessary resources, he added; the key will be to bring them together.

Kyu Whang, vice president for facilities services, noted that environmental sustainability is a guiding principle in the university's 2010-15 strategic plan.

"President [David] Skorton charged us to work as a team; to foster collaboration between the academic units and campus operations to create a broad-based living laboratory for renewable and efficient energy," along with other sustainability issues, Whang said.

The new focus teams initiative is part of the President's Sustainable Campus Committee (PSCC), which was formed by Skorton in April 2010. The 13-member committee oversees all aspects of sustainability in campus operations and facilities. Whang and Timothy Fahey, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Natural Resources, co-chair the committee.

The 10 teams are based on best practices identified by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, which administers STARS, an assessment tool for sustainability efforts in higher education. Over the next few months, teams will set goals, recruit team members and collect benchmark data for the STARS survey. Additionally, each team is charged with developing and implementing sustainability projects in collaboration with academic partners, campus operations offices, governance groups and students.

Monroe Weber-Shirk, senior lecturer in civil and environmental engineering and leader of AguaClara, a project in which students design municipal drinking water plants in Honduras that operate without electricity, said the living laboratory model has been particularly effective in that effort.

"We need to learn quickly -- and one of the ways that we do that in AguaClara is we have students and faculty working together on research and learning, and we have partners that are building facilities that students are designing, and then we get feedback from those facilities," Weber-Shirk said.

"That model is the living laboratory approach, where having feedback on things that are being built and changed on campus will feed back into the teaching and research," he said.

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